Author Archive

Baseball Ops: Welcome to the Evolution

In Pursuit of PennantsThis is a guest column by two old friends and baseball savants. Mark Armour and Dan Levitt wrote the fine article below to give “Our Game” readers a taste of their forthcoming book, In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations From Deadball to Moneyball. It will be published this month (March 2015) by the University of Nebraska Press (for more, see: http://goo.gl/QFqb8E). This is Mark and Dan’s second book as a team, following Paths to Glory (Potomac, 2003); each is an award-winning and prolific researcher and writer. Mark (Twitter handle @markarmour04) received SABR’s Henry Chadwick Award–the “Chaddie,” the baseball researcher’s highest honor–in 2014. Dan was a finalist for the Seymour Medal in 2009, for Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty.

Seven months from now two baseball teams will meet in the 2015 World Series. Pitches will be thrown, balls will be hit, and catches will be made, as the fifty players on the two rosters rightfully take center stage. There may be a distraction or two over a manager’s decision or an umpire’s call, but we can be confident that the skills of the talented players involved will ultimately determine which side will hoist the trophy on that late October night.

Among the millions watching will be two groups of very interested people: the Baseball Operations staffs whose collective efforts to scout, evaluate, draft, develop, sign or acquire these players ultimately determined the composition of the two rosters. All of their decision making will have been analyzed and graded as never before by fans and writers, many of whom feel comfortable second-guessing not just major league trades but also the drafting of high school prospects. While most of us tried to play baseball and gave up our big league dreams as teenagers or earlier, that has not stopped us from imagining that we could be the general manager of our local nine.

There have always been debates in schoolyards and bars about trades that should be made or players who should be signed, but the discourse has become much more complex and detailed in the past generation with the explosion of available data about players and the rise of analytics. Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, released in 2003, was a best-selling book in which the heroes were not players performing wondrous athletic feats, but smart guys arguing about baseball, a demographic which is easier for most of us to imagine fitting into.Moneyballsbn

Moneyball depicts Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in a David-vs-Goliath story. Faced with a significant revenue disadvantage compared with nearly every other team, Beane prevails over his counterparts by finding ways to outsmart them. How much Beane prevailed and the reasons why will be debated forever, but one thing is clear: Lewis’s book unearthed (or inspired) an increased interest in how baseball teams are run off the field. Baseball fans are no closer to playing like Andrew McCutcheon, but they have no shortage of opinions about who the Twins should be targeting in the upcoming amateur draft.

In particular, Moneyball was about the rise of analytics in baseball front offices, with Beane’s A’s at the forefront. According to Lewis, Beane understood the concept of market inefficiencies and the analogous benefit of finding undervalued players, and he believed that these players could be better identified using statistical and analytical techniques than by traditional scouting. For example, players who had high on-base-percentages without other identifiable strengths were undervalued, as were college players in the amateur draft.

One reason that the book created such a stir is that to many of us, these ideas were not new. Baseball statistical analysis had been evolving and developing for roughly fifty years and had begun to find an audience with the writings of Bill James by the late 1970s. Sabermetrics, a word coined by James, did not prescribe a set of formulas and answers, as its critics might have charged. It prescribes a process, a philosophy that teams should make decisions based on evidence and data. This was not a wholly new concept—scouts had been using radar guns and stopwatches for decades rather than merely trusting their eyes—but sabermetrics suggested that baseball’s vast statistical record could better tell us which players were actually helping their team score or prevent runs, which game strategies would increase the team’s chances of winning, which minor leaguers were likely to be good major leaguers, and more. Much more, in fact. To the analytically inclined fan, Beane became their surrogate in the revolution that was (belatedly) taking place inside of the game.

Billy Beane

Billy Beane

Twelve years later, the debate is mainly over. The specific arguments raised by Moneyball have appropriately been adopted or rejected, the best run teams today are using both traditional scouting and evidence-based analytics, and the two schools are working together. Whatever advantage Beane held over his contemporaries in 2003 he holds no longer. Market inefficiencies last only as long as the market stands still, and baseball teams are constantly searching for a new advantage. Within a few years, Beane needed to think of something else.

For almost a century, the person in charge of bringing players into a team’s organization and constructing the roster has been called the “general manager.” These men have held various titles over the years, but if you were the guy who made the trades people called you the GM. Like any business model, the growing game has caused further departmentalization, resulting in farm directors, scouting directors, assistant GMs, player personnel directors, analysts, video coordinators, medical coordinators, and more. Some teams, like the Cubs, have muddied the waters further by giving Theo Epstein the title “President of Baseball Operations” and making Jed Hoyer the general manager. “Baseball Operations,” a relatively new term in the game, generally encompasses a few dozen people working 52 weeks per year trying to make their organization smarter or stronger.

The overarching job of Baseball Ops is the same as it was decades ago: to find, evaluate, acquire, and develop baseball players for their organization. Each of these four items has become more complicated over the years. Not long ago, players were best found by driving around the country watching games, while now scouts have to travel the world. Player evaluation used to involve a stopwatch and a few sets of eyes, while today computers are reading terabytes of pitch rotation data. How one acquires players (amateur draft, free agency, etc.) has changed many times over the years, of course. Player development and instruction is still evolving as well.

Theo Epstein

Theo Epstein

Building a championship team, 140 years after the start of the first professional league, is more challenging today than ever before. No matter the strengths of any organization, its management is competing against other smart, well-motivated people with significant resources of their own. In a direct competition, where every action draws a reaction, there can be no easy recipe for success. In an industry where people shift between organizations on a regular basis, it is not possible to maintain advantages for more than a short period of time.

Organizations are also dealing with imperfect information when constructing their teams. Which eighteen-year-old draftee will add five miles per hour to his fastball, and which will hit for more power? Which player is ready to be promoted to the majors, which declining player is over the hill and which will rebound, and which free-agent pitcher is least likely to break down due to arm troubles? The list of things one cannot know, at least precisely, is endless. Nevertheless, teams must make decisions.

Most baseball franchises recognize the limitations of their knowledge and spend time and money to improve their analysis and decision-making, some more successfully than others. However, there is still much that can be learned from studying the history of Baseball Ops. Looking carefully, one can often identify differences between teams that have consistently succeeded and teams that struggle.

While the rise of analytics in the game, ten to fifteen years ago, was new, the pattern of its evolution was not. Billy Beane’s “Goliaths”—well-heeled teams—have always been around, have always had an advantage, and have always won more than their share of pennants and championships. But the most successful organizations have also generally been the smartest, in particular the ones that have either fundamentally changed the way baseball teams are built, or have best adapted to changes in the environment in which teams operate.

George Weiss and Joe DiMaggio

George Weiss and Joe DiMaggio

In Only the Paranoid Survive, Andrew S. Grove, a onetime Intel CEO, called these transitions “strategic inflection points,” moments “when the balance of forces shifts, from the old structure, from the old ways of doing business and the old ways of competing, to the new.” Changes within the technology industry, where Grove worked, are usually more dramatic and momentous, but the concept he describes is certainly useful for thinking about changes in baseball.

No man illustrates Grove’s point better than Branch Rickey, the game’s most legendary and successful GM. Among other things, Rickey is largely responsible for the two most important inflection points in the game’s history.

In the 1920s Rickey was running the Cardinals and did not believe that his team could afford the high prices being charged by independent minor league teams for their players. Instead, he proposed that the Cardinals acquire their own teams and develop their own players. Baseball rules prohibited much of Rickey’s plan for a few years, but eventually the Cardinals and Yankees successfully lobbied for the requisite rules changes and both teams immediately set up huge farm systems. Over the next two decades, they were the dominant teams in the game. The clubs that were slow to create farm systems were soon unable to compete.

Branch Rickey (r.) with Larry MacPhail

Branch Rickey (r.) with Larry MacPhail

By 1945 Rickey was running the Dodgers, and that August he signed Jackie Robinson to a contract. In so doing, Rickey opened up, as a practical matter, the largest pool of untapped talent in the history of the game. Within a few years Robinson, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella were playing in Brooklyn and winning pennants. Soon other teams followed suit, and now-legendary black players were starring throughout the game and winning championships.

This great story is usually told through a moral lens, through which Rickey had the courage to do the right thing and, thanks to his great players, triumphed. But Rickey and other GMs who subsequently integrated their teams needed more than courage, they needed to hire scouts and direct them to places where black people would be playing, places that they were not currently scouting, like Latin America or small towns in the segregated South.

The lessons of the 1950s have played out many times since, as teams have established advantages in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Japan, and, just recently, Cuba again. It sounds obvious—go where the players are—but pennants have been won or lost due to teams’ willingness to heed this simple commandment. Pat Gillick, a great scout and talent evaluator who became one of history’s best GMs, made inroads into the Dominican Republic that forever changed the game, as one look at today’s All-Star rosters and league leaderboards can attest. His later acquisition of Japanese stars, especially Ichiro Suzuki, ended any misconceptions Americans might have had about the talent there.

In the first half-century or so of the professional game the job of finding players fell to either the owner or field manager. Barney Dreyfuss owned the Pirates for more than 30 years and assumed the responsibility for finding many of the players for his great teams. He studied the baseball periodicals of the day, had connections around the country, and kept detailed notes in a notebook. Branch Rickey once suggested that Dreyfuss, who had never seriously played the game, was the best judge of baseball talent he had ever been around. John McGraw, whose Giants dominated the National League for a quarter century, completely ran his team on and off the field, with little interference from ownership. Both models, in the hands of a man of sufficient talent and genius, could and did work.

Barney Dreyfuss Tip-Top Bread Card, 1910

Barney Dreyfuss Tip-Top Bread Card, 1910

The first innovation, or “inflection point,” in Baseball Ops was the creation of the general manager position. There are many men who could lay claim to being baseball’s first GM, a non-owner non-manager in charge of finding and acquiring players. The best candidate for defining the position is probably Ed Barrow, hired by Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston in late 1920. Barrow’s unqualified success, building a great scouting staff and soon a dynasty, helped make the GM the dominant model in baseball front offices. Rickey held a similar role with the Cardinals, and had comparable success in the National League. The best GMs in later years—the Yankees’ George Weiss in the 1950s, the Reds’ Bob Howsam in the 1970s, the Blue Jays’ Gillick in the 1980s, the Giants’ Brian Sabean in recent years—were known for building top-notch baseball organizations by finding, motivating, and listening to scouts, player-personnel people, and, more recently, analytics and video staffs. Almost all great teams have done this better than their competition.

The evolution of team building also involved an increasing sophistication of front offices. In addition to Rickey, in the mid-1920s the Cardinals front office consisted of owner Sam Breadon (occasionally), treasurer/key assistant Bill DeWitt Sr. (the father of the Cardinals’ current owner), traveling secretary Clarence Lloyd, and two secretaries. Today, the Baseball Pperations side alone of the San Francisco Giants employs 33 executives.

Pat Gillick

Pat Gillick

Some of the biggest challenges faced by Baseball Ops over the years are due to changes to the game off the field. After experimenting with bonus rules for 20 years, in 1965 baseball held its first amateur draft. No longer could teams like the Yankees and Dodgers rely on their advantages in money and prestige. Scouts could still provide an advantage in deciding who to draft, but everyone had the same shot at the same players. The A’s and Dodgers, in particular, had several great early drafts that propelled them to excellence in the 1970s. Fifty years later, even with all of the international inroads that have been made, the draft still provides nearly 70 percent of the talent to the major leagues.

Baseball underwent another major change with the advent of widespread free agency in 1976. From a Baseball Ops standpoint, free agency put an even larger premium on evaluating veteran players—not only their present, but also their future. In an age of one-year contracts, players would hold down a job until they showed they could not, and then the team found someone else. But now most important decisions—signing free agents, signing your own players to keep them from free agency, making trades—had long-range implications. Understanding how players—both generally and specifically—are likely to age is crucial, and analytics have played an increasingly large role in this understanding.

Twelve years ago Moneyball shone a light on analytics, another chapter in the continual evolution of Baseball Operations. But it was not the final chapter. The recent marriage of video technology and high-speed computing, which has led (so far) to increased defensive shifts, a better understanding of swing mechanics, and further advances in pitch selection, was but a dream when Moneyball was published.

What’s next? Imagine a team that figures out how to reduce pitcher injuries—how big of an advantage would that be? You can be certain that the best organizations are working on this problem as you read this. Teams are also using the latest research from neuroscience and other disciplines to try to better understand the mental side of player performance.

The best organizations have always been ones that looked for new solutions, or better ways to implement the old solutions. New challenges will inevitably lead to larger and more complicated Baseball Operations departments, working ever harder in their search for an increasingly valuable extra win.

Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Photographs, Part 5

 

Mathew Brady's baseball photo missed the cut.

Mathew Brady’s baseball photo missed the cut.

And now we head for the last roundup. You, having arrived here presumably after a spin through the previous four parts, might offer radically different selections, or at the least rank them differently. The selection process, I can say, was difficult and the rankings no less so. But I have been thinking on this subject for a good long while, so it could be that I overstate the effort. A Facebook friend asked in midweek, “Will these perhaps be a part of a future book with corresponding text?”

I replied: “Mark Rucker and I had thought to create precisely such a book in the mid-1980s, when both baseball and photography were nearing their 150th anniversaries, as they were then identified. Publishers didn’t go for it. If this idea does a Lazarus, I’m all over it–and would always wish to work again with Mark, via www.theruckerarchive.com.” The limit for this week’s posts to “Our Game” I set at 25 for reasons of bandwidth consumption and user friendliness. But could this topic–baseball’s greatest photographs–go ten times larger, to 250 images? Absolutely.

I could make the additional selections, ideally with my old friend Mark, but wouldn’t it be great if we could work in your suggestions, too? You know, when we came up with the idea almost thirty years ago, a book was the obvious way to present such an array. But the web may be even better. The first of this five-part series drew three times more views than a typical “Our Game” blogpost; the next went on to triple that day-old high-water mark.

So maybe we do not end here, on this day, but only pause and regather.

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21.  Ted Williams beats the play at first, Fenway Park, ca. 1946; photographer unknown.

21.  Ted Williams beats the play at first, Fenway Park, ca. 1946; photographer unknown.

22. Jackie Robinson is called up from the Montreal Royals to the Brooklyn Dodgers, April 10, 1947; William C. Greene, New York World-Telegram.  

22. Jackie Robinson is called up from the Montreal Royals to the Brooklyn Dodgers, April 10, 1947; William C. Greene, New York World-Telegram.

23. Christy Mathewson portrait, 1910; Paul Thompson.

23. Christy Mathewson portrait, 1910; Paul Thompson.

24. Willie Mays, near the end of his great career, pleading an out call at home plate, 1973 World Series, Game Two; Russ Reed.

24. Willie Mays, near the end of his great career, pleading an out call at home plate, 1973 World Series, Game Two; Russ Reed.

25. A record crowd at Baltimore for game that clinches pennant for Boston, September 27, 1897; LOC.

25. A record crowd at Baltimore for game that clinches pennant for Boston, September 27, 1897; LOC.

This marks the end of the five-part series that commenced here: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/03/02/diamond-visions-baseballs-greatest-photographs/

Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Photographs, Part 4

Babe Ruth, 1920.

Babe Ruth, 1920.

Roger Kahn had it right when he titled his wonderful book about aging Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer. There is a special poignancy to the passage of time in baseball. As all clocks are stopped in the confines of the ball park, where the game ain’t over till it’s over, so is the fan impervious to the slipping sands of time. The heroes of our youth grow old–“the boys of summer in their ruin,” in Dylan Thomas’s full phrase—yet we seem the same. That’s why such occasions as Old Timers’ Day or the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are so sadly sweet; better, we may think for a moment, to preserve these heroes in our memories as they were, frozen in a baseball-card pose, so that we too might stay young forever.

But often we say our baseball heroes age and stumble, foretelling our own fates.And when photographs depict, say Babe Ruth or Willie Mays in their primes, and are on hand to record the sad final days of their storied careers, that is the glory of the game. For even when we see the boys of summer in their ruin, we recall them ever after at their peaks, when they were young and so were we. Like a photograph, baseball stops time and holds it.

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16. Jackie Robinson steals home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series; Yogi Berra still contests the call; Frank Hurley, New York Daily News.

16. Jackie Robinson steals home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series; Yogi Berra will enduringly contest the call; Frank Hurley, New York Daily News.

17. Opening Day of the Grand Pavilion of South End Grounds, Boston, May 25, 1888; photographer by Augustine H. Folsom.

17. Opening Day of the Grand Pavilion of South End Grounds, Boston, May 25, 1888; photographer Augustine H. Folsom.

18. Babe Ruth hits one out at the Polo Grounds, ca. 1920; photographer unknown.

18. Babe Ruth skies one at the Polo Grounds, July 13, 1920; photographer unknown.

19. October 8, 1904 New York Highlanders battle for pennant with Boston Pilgrims on final day of season, Huntington Avenue Grounds; photographer George R. Lawrence.

19. October 8, 1904 New York Highlanders battle for pennant with Boston Pilgrims on final day of season, Huntington Avenue Grounds; photographer George R. Lawrence.

20. Babe Ruth on his final day in the majors, with Boston Braves; photographer Bruce Murray.

20. Babe Ruth on his final day in the majors, with Boston Braves; photographer Bruce Murray.

Photos 21-25 tomorrow! This series commenced here: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/03/02/diamond-visions-baseballs-greatest-photographs/

Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Photographs, Part 3

Boston's South End Grounds

Boston’s South End Grounds

Many baseball fans love the old ballparks, as much or more than they do the old players and teams. These hosts to great days, these halls of fame–they have a romance about them out of all proportion to their architectural merits. Soon, I expect, we will experience a nostalgic glow when recalling Shea Stadium. If the America that was survives anywhere, it is in baseball, that strangely pastoral game in no matter what setting—domed stadium or Little League field. There were baseball photographers who specialized neither in portraiture nor in game action but in sweeping vistas of these green cathedrals. George H. Hastings in Boston, George R. Lawrence in Chicago, Irving Underhill in New York, and a legion of unnamed practitioners of the panoramic art working for the Bain News Service or the Pictorial News Company.

The wooden ballparks of the early period were firetraps–even those as gorgeous as Boston’s South End Grounds, which succumbed to flame in midgame on May 15, 1894, a footnote to the Great Roxbury Fire. The concrete-and-steel palaces that sprang up liked dandelions as baseball boomed, beginning with Shibe Park and Forbes Field in 1909, became long-standing museums of a million memories, and even when we see a panoramic view of an old ballpark into which we never set foot, we feel good about baseball, and America, and ourselves.

In this next set of great photos, it may be said that the ballparks and the fans rise to the fore, with the players retreating for a moment.

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11.  University of Pittsburgh students cheer wildly from atop the Cathedral of Learning as they look down on Forbes Field, Game 7, 1960 World Series; George Silk for Life.

11.  University of Pittsburgh students cheer wildly from atop the Cathedral of Learning as they look down on Forbes Field, Game 7, 1960 World Series; George Silk for Life.

12. Bird's-eye view of baseball game, Detroit at Chicago, October 1908; photographer unknown, Detroit Public Library.

12. Bird’s-eye view of baseball game, Detroit at Chicago, October 1908; photographer unknown, Detroit Public Library.

13.  Cy Young, fat and forty but still a star; George Grantham Bain Collection, LOC.

13.  Cy Young, fat and forty but still a star; George Grantham Bain Collection, LOC.

14. Hal Janvrin out at the plate, Game 2, 1916 World Series; photographer unknown.

14. Hal Janvrin out at the plate, Game 2, 1916 World Series; photographer unknown.

15. Casey Stengel of the Giants scores winning run with a ninth-inning inside the park homer, Game One, 1923 World Series; photographer unknown.

15. Casey Stengel of the Giants scores winning run with a ninth-inning inside the park homer, Game One, 1923 World Series; photographer unknown.

Photos 16-20 tomorrow! This series commenced here: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/03/02/diamond-visions-baseballs-greatest-photographs/

Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Photographs, Part 2

Willie Mays, "The Catch"--from CF.

Willie Mays, “The Catch”–from CF; less famous (!).

I would have liked to feature an image from each of the great baseball photographers, but as there are more than 25, it was impossible. Hy Peskin, Charles Conlon, Neil Leifer, George Silk, Walter Iooss, Louis Van Oeyen, Charles Williamson, Joseph Hall, Paul Thompson, James Wallace Black, Carl Horner, Gilbert Bacon, Ozzie Sweet … the list runs on and on, to well beyond the 25 that forms my upper limit this week. Maybe one of you out there in the dark, dear readers, might wish to tackle a guest piece here on the subject of the great baseball photographers?

Carlton Fisk HR, Harry Cabluck, AP

Carlton Fisk HR, Harry Cabluck, AP

Over the years, with advancing technology and instant access to mass media, much has been gained, but something has been lost too. The telephoto lens makes easy what once was hard, but beauty has generally been the casualty of technical proficiency. Long distance shots of such great moments as Hank Aaron’s 715th home run or Carlton Fisk’s imploring his drive to stay fair will not make the cut here. Great moments make for iconic images, but seldom artistic ones. My two cents, of course; feel free to box my ears.

And then there are the photographs that tell a richly layered story. I am a sucker for such images; they are the spur to memory, and a writer’s friend. But the beautiful image speaks unaided, so I have not felt compelled to provide back-story in this week’s blog entries. You could look it up, or send me a note by wire, or whatever the kids do these days.

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6. Polo Grounds, Opening Day, April 29, 1886, shot from the stands with Kodak's new "detective camera"; Richard Hoe Lawrence.

6. Polo Grounds, April 29, 1886, shot from stands with Kodak’s new “detective camera”; Richard Hoe Lawrence.

7. The Catch, Willie Mays, Game One, World Series, September 29, 1954; Frank Hurley, New York Daily News.

7. The Catch, Willie Mays, Game One, World Series, September 29, 1954; Frank Hurley, New York Daily News.

8. Willie Davis, shot from remote camera, second base, Dodger Stadium, April 25, 1965; Neil Leifer.

8. Willie Davis, shot from remote camera, second base, Dodger Stadium, April 25, 1965; Neil Leifer.

9. Lou Gehrig in dugout, Detroit May 2, 1939; he would not play this day; unknown photographer, AP.

9. Lou Gehrig in dugout, Detroit May 2, 1939; he would not play this day; unknown photographer, AP.

10. Fenway Park, May 20, 1937: Cleveland's Jeff Heath leaps over Red Sox catcher Gene Desautels; Leslie Jones.

10. Fenway Park, May 20, 1937: Cleveland’s Jeff Heath leaps over Red Sox catcher Gene Desautels; Leslie Jones.

Photos 11-15 tomorrow! This series commenced here: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/03/02/diamond-visions-baseballs-greatest-photographs/

Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Photographs

Hy Peskin at Yankee Stadium

Hy Peskin at Yankee Stadium

What are baseball’s greatest photographs? That question came up on Twitter over the weekend. Some fellow tweeps offered World Series highlights, others offered sterling Sandy Koufax moments, or inspiring Jackie Robinson shots. It all boils down to criteria, I countered. Do you mean a great moment captured by the camera? An evocative portrait? A sweeping landscape? A favorite ballplayer or ballpark? A favorite photographer? For me, any of these groupings is sensible–and large enough that to select a top ten would be tough. But I promised to offer my thoughts here at Our Game, where the 140-character limit holds no sway.

In a way, I have tackled this question previously through subsets, most recently “Lost Ballparks” (http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2014/09/03/picture-portfolio-no-7-lost-ballparks/). I devoted separate 15-picture portfolios to Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Jackie Robinson; another to the game in the 1880s; and yet another to women in baseball (http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2014/03/28/picture-portfolio-no-3-women-in-baseball/). At the site I created to accompany publication of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I provided many of the best images (not only photographs) from the period covered in that book: https://baseballeden.com/Images.html. So this subject has interested me ever since I became a fan, back in the Pleistocene Era.

But let’s return to that big question of the game’s greatest photographs, cutting across all imaginable subsets. For this, I think the criterion must be … beauty.

Boy with Ball; 1850s Daguerreotype

Boy, ball, bat; 1850s Daguerreotype.

Baseball and photography were made for each other, and in fact they share a traditional, if erroneous, birthdate of 1839. In that year Abner Doubleday is supposed to have had the brainstorm that we now know as baseball—a pretty tale, but one that scholars have winked at for years—and Louis Daguerre presented to the French Academy of Sciences a new process for capturing images on light-sensitive coated plates that he immodestly named daguerreotypes. One baseball “dag” survives from the mid-1840s, depicting six members of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club (a dispute has lately arisen over the identities of those depicted). The first photograph of a baseball team survives only in a newspaper halftone from the 1930s: the Gotham Base Ball Club of 1855. Salt prints survive of the Knickerbockers and Excelsiors, posed on the playing field in 1859; and another of the Excelsior with Jim Creighton from 1860. These are beautiful to those of an antiquarian bent, but if they are among the game’s greatest photographs it is because of their historical importance.

I was asked on Twitter to offer my personal top five, and with trepidation I do so below, reserving the right to post five more tomorrow, and maybe five more each day of this week. (We’ll see about that.) To limit the millions of candidates just a bit, I have not considered any photos of Little League, amateur, collegiate, semi-pro, or minor-league baseball. Many posed images are gorgeous testaments to the skill of the studio or sideline photographer, but these take a back seat here.

I caution readers that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so I offer my selections from no perch of special expertise. You will have your own favorites, and I’ll be happy if you share them with me. A story could be written about each of the photographs to follow, but not today. Enjoy, and argue, and enjoy.

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1.  Babe Ruth’s Farewell, June 13, 1948;  Nat Fein, New York Herald Tribune.

2. Ty Cobb (Detroit Tigers) sliding into Jimmy Austin (NY Highlanders); Charles M. Conlon, 1909-10.

2. Ty Cobb (Detroit Tigers) sliding into Jimmy Austin (NY Highlanders); Charles M. Conlon, 1909-10.

3. Hack Wilson, ca. 1930; photographer unknown, National Baseball Library.

3. Hack Wilson, ca. 1930; photographer unknown, National Baseball Library.

4. Mickey Cochrane tags out Phils' base runner Pinky Whitne, preseason exhibition at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, April 1, 1933; photographer unknown.

4. Mickey Cochrane tags out Phils’ base runner Pinky Whitney, in preseason exhibition at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, April 1, 1933; photographer unknown.

5. Hank Aaron on deck, 1957 World Series; Hy Peskin.

5. Hank Aaron on deck, 1957 World Series; Hy Peskin.

A Brief History of the Pitching Distance

Kid Nichols grip

Kid Nichols grip

This issue comes up a lot with fans, especially those who know quite a lot about baseball history. A tweet this morning persuaded me (#AskTheHistorian) to dash off a reply longer than 140 characters.Fans will assume that because the pitching distance in was 50 feet in 1892 and 60’6″ one year later, the poor pitchers had to throw 10’6″ farther. Further, they assume, this “fact” explains the offensive explosion of 1894, when NL pitchers had an all-time-high ERA of 5.33, the league batted for an average of .309, and five men hit over .400–four of these in the Philadelphia outfield alone. Here’s the real story.

From 1845 to 1880 the pitching distance was 45 feet. The pitcher had to deliver the ball from behind a 12-foot line, at least until 1863. At that point a back another 12-foot line, 48 feet from home, was added, in effect creating the pitcher’s box. In many of the years that followed, the dimensions of the box changed, but until 1880 the front line stood at 45 feet. Now I repeat from an earlier post:

“[In the 1870s] baseballs were now being manufactured in mass, with deplorable quality control: The dead ball was, by midgame, often the mush ball. The fans no longer considered low scores so remarkable. National League bat­ting averages declined every year from 1877 to 1880, falling from .271 to an alarming .245. The number of strikeouts nearly tri­pled as pitchers perfected the curves and slants introduced only a decade before. The league ERA was 2.37. The fledgling circuit, which in those years included franchises in such marginal sites as Troy, Syracuse, Worcester, and Providence, was losing money and in big trouble.

“To the rescue came Harry Wright, the or­ganizer of the Cincinnati Red Stockings and ‘Father of Professional Baseball.’ He per­ceived the threat as early as 1877 when, in the Boston Red Stockings’ final exhibition contest, he had the pitcher’s box moved back 5 feet. The following year, in a September exhibition contest against Indianapolis, he arranged for the game to be played with: a walk awarded on six balls rather than the nine that then prevailed; every pitch count­ing as either a strike or a ball, thus elimi­nating the ‘warning’ call an umpire made when a batter watched a good pitch sail by; and complete elimination of restrictions on a pitcher’s delivery—he might throw any way he wished. In the winter prior to the 1880 season, Wright proposed a flat bat and a cork-centered lively ball. And in Decem­ber 1882, by which time most of the above proposals had been tried and some insti­tuted—the front of the pitcher’s box at 50 feet, the abolition of warning pitches, the walk awarded on seven balls, soon to be six—he proposed denying the batter the right to call for a high or low pitch and, most dramatically, a pitcher’s box of 56 feet—very much the pitching distance of today. (The pitching distance at that time was measured from home plate to the front of the box, or true point of delivery, while today’s distance is measured from the plate to the rubber, from which the pitcher’s front foot strides some 4 to 4.5 feet forward.) [NOTE: my friend Bill Deane has corrected me thus in a note below and, as usual, he is right: “It was actually only 4’3½” shorter, as the pre-1893 distance was measured from the center of the base instead of the rear point, as it is today. See the appropriate chapter in Baseball Myths (Scarecrow, 2012).”]

“Hitting revived briskly in 1881, the first year of the new 50-foot pitching distance, but soon slid back again. The rule makers continued their tinkering with the ball/strike count (raising the strike count to four for 1887–in effect raising it to former levels, since the old warning pitch had prevailed until 1880 and was granted with two strikes until 1881–and lowering the ball count to four by 1889); the length of the pitcher’s box (from 7 feet to 6 feet to, in the final adjustment before replacement by the rubber, 5.5 feet); the pitcher’s windup (banning the running start and, for 1885, the raised-leg windup); and, most important, the delivery itself.”

To recap: In 1892 the pitching distance was truly only four feet, 3-1/2 inches shorter than that of today, because before the introduction of the slab, from which the 60’6″ distance is taken, the pitcher threw from a box, the front of which was 50 feet from the plate. However, the back line was five and a half feet farther back. In that last year of the old distance, which had been in force since 1880, Amos Rusie, may have been, from the batter’s perspective, the fastest pitcher ever.

Yankee Doodling

Milton Gross, Yankee Doodles, 1948.

Milton Gross, Yankee Doodles, 1948.

Ever wonder how the New York Yankees got their name? Some of my correspondents have speculated that the name would have made a better fit for a Boston club, and they are right. When the National Football League placed a franchise in Boston in 1933 it was nicknamed the Braves, after the baseball team, or the Redskins. The club took the latter with it when it relocated to Washington, D.C. A subsequent NFL reentry into the Boston market in 1944-1948 was named the Boston Yanks. But the Yankees name goes way back, in a serpentine story with not a blessed thing about sports, let alone baseball. And yet, dear reader, you may like it anyway. A portion of this ran originally in Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore.

***

In September 2009 Tom Brady and the New England Patriots opened their NFL season at home on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. I had been worried about him. A nagging injury, cloaked in mystery in the typical Belichick style of the club, had kept him out of all four preseason games. Leaks to the press had localized the problem in his right foot but I had come to suspect that Brady had in fact hurt himself at a midsummer photo shoot for Esquire magazine, when the play calling may have stretched the quarterback beyond his natural limits.

For the cover of the magazine poor Tom was poured into a wasp-waisted wool suit by Gucci which forced him to hold his breath dangerously. The tightness of the two-button jacket was rakishly offset by an unbuttoned collar and a tie positioned strategically askew. His shoes were credited—and I’m not making this up—to a cobbler named A. Testoni. Brady’s raging five o’clock shadow was not credited to Richard Nixon, but his close-cropped hair was ascribed to “Pini Swissa for Pini Swissa Salon.” (This was clearly the head guy at the shop on Newbury Street in Boston—he even traveled with Brady to the Super Bowl and, ignoring Delilah’s cautionary model, cut his locks the night before the game. The Giants are properly grateful.)

Esquire, September 2009

Esquire, September 2009

Two crotch-focused shots offset the crotch-focused prose of the story inside, ostensibly the inside story about Tom Brady, superstar. “A big man. Taller, thinner, slower, quieter, and—it must be said—a little more milky white than one might expect. In the glinting angle of a limousine-crafted profile, he brings to mind someone beautiful and iconically male—Tyrone Power, perhaps.” Really.

Further into the story the writer, Tom Chiarella, quotes Tom as saying, “I like home magazines.” … “It’s hard,” Chiarella smarmily continues, “to think of the Brady all squoogie at the sight of a duvet cover or a teak spice rack.”

Is this male impersonator in Esquire the stoic quarterback whom sports fans had cast in the mold of Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees? Or is he truly a Yankee Doodle Dandy, a mincing cartoon? Before we hit the table of contents of the September issue we are made to run a gauntlet of 34 pages of soft-porn ads, from the glowering ambisexual models promoting Hugo Boss or Prada to the glistening torso of David Beckham to the artfully moussed Roger Federer.

What is going on here? Have our sports heroes and our media culture gone metrosexual? The unexpectedly high viewership of the Summer Olympics on NBC owed much to the record performances of swimmer Michael Phelps, but maybe even more, in this new age of spornography, to his Speedo.

Oh, why should I grumble? Has it not been ever thus? In the years before the Revolution made it America’s patriotic anthem, “Yankee Doodle” was a song of derision that the British heaped upon ignorant colonists hoping to attain foppish stature by aping English gentlemen. The first verse and refrain, as generally sung by children today, run thus:

Yankee Doodle went to town,
A-riding on a pony.
He stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy.
Yankee Doodle round the world,
As sweet as sugar candy.

This seems a mild enough if not fully fathomable jest—hardly a slander. How then to account for the eponymous hero’s enduring power as a figure of fun? What precisely was a Yankee, or a Doodle, or most intriguingly, a macaroni?

Game of Yankee Doodle, McLoughlin, 1899.

Game of Yankee Doodle, McLoughlin, 1899.

Some savants trace the history of “Yankee Doodle” back to a harvesting song of fifteenth century Holland, “Yanker dudel doodle down,” sung by laborers who were paid with a tenth of the grain they harvested and all the buttermilk they could drink. Others find echoes of the melody in the equally old English rhyme “Lucy Locket” (“Lucy Locket lost her pocket, / Kitty Fisher found it; / Nothing in it, nothing in it, / But the binding round it”). In the days of Oliver Cromwell, one of the nicknames that the Cavaliers bestowed upon the Puritans was “Nankee Doodle.” An Albany-area tradition attributes a 1758 incarnation of “Yankee Doodle” to Dr. Richard Shuckburgh–a British army surgeon, wit, and musician who is said to have written it at Fort Crailo to mock the ragtag New England militia serving alongside the redcoats.

Yankee Doodle, a humor magazine

Yankee Doodle, a humor magazine

No matter; the essence is that it is a song of insult. The Yankee—as Captain Yankey (the Dutch pirate), or Jan (pronounced “Yan”) Kees (the Dutch for John Cheese), or James Fenimore Cooper’s Algonquian Yengeese, or Washington Irving’s fanciful tribe of yanokies—was a strong, silent sharpster who was after your money. A doodle was simply a fool, and so we may fairly term Yankee Doodle a sophomore, which translates from Greek to a wise fool.

Although earlier clues abound, we need look back no farther than 1775, when after the battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental army, under General Washington’s command, was encamped in the vicinity of Boston. The Tories were then singing to the old tune of “Lucy Locket” these lines:

Yankee Doodle came to town
For to buy a firelock;
We will tar and feather him,
And so we will John Hancock.

Thomas Ditson, of Billerica, Massachusetts, was the one actually tarred and feathered for attempting to buy a musket in Boston in March 1775. The Battle of Bunker Hill in June turned the tables, however, as “Yankee Doodle” came to be sung by the patriots. The complete Americanization of the song ensued as Harvard student Edward Bangs penned the following during George Washington’s presence at the provincial camp in Cambridge in 1775:

Father and I went down to camp,
Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we seed the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up,
Yankee Doodle Dandy;
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.

Following General Burgoyne’s surrender of British troops to the Continental Army on October 17, 1777, British officer Thomas Anburey wrote:

The name [of Yankee] has been more prevalent since the commencement of hostilities…. The soldiers at Boston used it as a term of reproach, but after the affair at Bunker’s Hill, the Americans gloried in it. “Yankee Doodle” is now their paean, a favorite of favorites, played in their army, esteemed as warlike as the “Grenadier’s March”—it is the lover’s spell, the nurse’s lullaby … it was not a little mortifying to hear them play this tune, when their army marched down to our surrender.

A Macaroni, 1773

The Macaroni, 1773

Although musicologists have not found an 18th-century version of Yankee Doodle with the immortal line “He stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni,” the jibe may well have originated about the time of the Macaroni Club, established in London in the 1760s for men of polymorphous sexuality. By 1772 the macaroni was a national infatuation, even spawning a magazine not unlike the current Esquire (it was called The Macaroni and Theatrical Magazine). According to contemporary Thomas Wright, “the macaronis were distinguished especially by an immense knot of artificial hair behind, by a very small cock-hat, by an enormous walking-stick, with long tassels, and by jacket, waistcoat, and breeches of very close cut…. Macaronis were the most attractive objects in the ball, or at the theatre. Macaronis abounded everywhere. There were macaroni songs; the most popular of these latter was the following: —

Ye belles and beaux of London town,
Come listen to my ditty;
The muse, in prancing up and down,
Has found out something pretty;
With little hat, and hair dressed high,
And whip to ride a pony,
If you but take a right survey.
Denotes a macaroni.”

Although musicologists have not found an eighteenth-century version of “Yankee Doodle” with the immortal line “He stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni,” that jibe may well have originated about the time of the Macaroni Club, established in London in the 1760s by men of polymorphous sexuality. By 1772 the macaroni was a national infatuation, even spawning . According to contemporary Thomas Wright:

The macaronis were distinguished especially by an immense knot of artificial hair behind, by a very small cock-hat, by an enormous walking-stick, with long tassels, and by jacket, waistcoat, and breeches of very close cut. . . . Macaronis were the most attractive objects in the ball, or at the theatre. Macaronis abounded everywhere.

Two macaronis, ridiculed as "la mode Anglaise"

Two macaronis, “a la mode Anglaise,” ca. 1820

Named for the vermicelli-based pasta enjoyed by cultivated young Englishmen of the 1760s on their tours of Italy—a nation thought by the English to be a particular den of perversion, even more so than France or Spain—the macaroni embodied the consumption of continental fare in intellectual and moral spheres, as well. Old-fashioned Englishmen came to identify macaroni culture with all that was outlandish and effeminate.

As “The Macaroni; A New Song” put it in 1772:

His taper waist, so strait and long,
His spindle shanks, like pitchfork prong,
To what sex does the thing belong?
‘Tis call’d a Macaroni. 

Between yesterday’s macaroni and today’s metrosexual there may not be much to choose. Mark Simpson coined the term in a 1994 article in the Independent titled “Here Come the Mirror Men.” Eight years later, in Salon, he wrote:

For some time now, old-fashioned (re)productive, repressed, unmoisturized heterosexuality has been given the pink slip by consumer capitalism. The stoic, self-denying, modest straight male didn’t shop enough (his role was to earn money for his wife to spend), and so he had to be replaced by a new kind of man, one less certain of his identity and much more interested in his image….

A Yankee Doodle Dandy indeed.

The New York Base Ball Club (a.k.a. Washington BBC, Gotham BBC), Part 3

Base Ball Founders, 2013

Base Ball Founders, 2013

This biographical section concludes the essay, commenced here: http://goo.gl/WQEVTR and continued here: http://goo.gl/7ySYpO. It was published in print in Base Ball Founders: The Clubs, Players and Cities of the Northeast That Established the Game. (McFarland, 2013). The aid of editor Peter Morris in this section was invaluable.

Cornelius V. Anderson: President of the Washington Club in the early 1850s after being the chief engineer of the Volunteer Firemen from 1837 to 1848. His portrait was prominently displayed at Harry Venn’s Gotham Cottage at 298 Bowery, the ballclub’s headquarters after 1845. Born in New York City on April 1, 1809, Anderson was a mason by trade. In 1852 he became the first president of the Lorillard Fire Insurance Company. His health began to fail in 1856 and he died on November 22, 1858. He was revered among the city’s firemen, who erected an elaborate tombstone in his honor at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

Charles H. Beadle: First baseman and officer of the Gotham Club during and after the Civil War, into the 1870s. Charles’s brother, Edward Beadle, was also involved in the club and both brothers later moved to Cranford, New Jersey, where Edward served as mayor in 1885.

Edward Bonnell: Edward Bonnell was recalled by George Zettlein as “one of the players” on the Gothams. Born around 1825, Bonnell was a liquor dealer before becoming a member of the New York Board of Fire Commissioners in 1865. Zettlein reported that Bonnell was living in Philadelphia in 1887.[39]

William F. Burns: A Gotham catcher in 1855–56. According to the Clipper article quoted in the profile of Venn, Burns died in the 1857 sinking of the SS Central America. Contemporary coverage of that tragedy does indeed list him among the missing: “William Burns of New York City. Had been in California about a year.”[40]

C[larence] A. Burtis: The leading Gotham player of 1860, in which his runs-per-game ratio was the third best in the National Association, behind only Grum of the Eckfords and Leggett of the Excelsiors. In a game against the Mutuals on September 4, 1860, Burtis hit two home runs. After playing for the Gotham Club in 1859 and 1860, Burtis was absent from the lineup in 1861. He was back by the summer of 1862 and played through at least 1865. He also played in an 1888 oldtimers benefit game for John Zeller, crippled by a gruesome baseball injury. George Zettlein described Burtis (though recalling him as Bustis) as a “boss painter in the Ninth ward,” so he can only be Clarence A. Burtis, a painter who was born around 1835 and died in Manhattan on May 16, 1894. Burtis enlisted in the 83rd Regiment, New York Infantry, on May 26, 1861, and was a sergeant-major by the time of his discharge in June of 1862. Like many of his fellow club members, Burtis was also very active in the fire department.

Charles L. Case, passport application, 1850

Charles L. Case, passport application, 1850

Charles Ludlow Case: Born in Newburgh, New York, in 1818, he was a NYBBC player in the contest of November 10, 1845, when he resided at 7 Murray and was a merchant at 101 Front. He was at one time a butcher at Washington Market. He also played for the New York Club in the two games against the cricketers from the Union Star of Brooklyn on October 21 and 24, 1845. In the game of June 19, 1846, he played with the club designated as the New Yorks. Case arrived in San Francisco for the Gold Rush on February 27, 1849. At a meeting of January 6, 1851, he became a member of the Finance Committee of the newly formed Knickerbocker Association, composed of New York residents living in San Francisco. He was joined on that committee by Edward A. Ebbets and Frank Turk, who had been members of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York. It is reasonable to think that they were among the unnamed men reported to have played baseball in Portsmouth Square in 1851.[41] Case returned east and died in Newburgh on March 25, 1857.

Leonard G. Cohen: Officer of the Gotham Club during and after the Civil War; catcher for the ballclub. As of 1869 he was a fruit dealer in Washington Market and living at 144 West Street. Cohen was born around 1839 in New York to a Polish-born father (though one census had Germany). He later moved to New Jersey and served as the first postmaster in Garwood, part of Westfield township, where he was still living as late as 1910.

Charles C. Commerford

Charles C. Commerford

Charles C. Commerford: Born in New York City, June 2, 1833; died in Waterbury, Connecticut, February 6, 1920. Played shortstop with Gothams and later the Eagles. Moved from New York to Waterbury in 1864, where he continued to play ball. After some political successes, he was appointed postmaster in Waterbury by President Grover Cleveland in 1886. His father, the chair-maker John Commerford of New York City, was an Abolitionist prominently identified with labor interests, and was a candidate for Congress on the Republican ticket in 1860. [See the entry on the Bridgeport Club in Base Ball Pioneers, 1850–1870 for more details on his life.]

John Connell: George Zettlein described this man as a member of the Gothams and added that he “was on the Herald for some time, and is still [in 1887] a writer.”

Reuben Henry Cudlipp: Reuben Cudlipp was a Nassau Street lawyer who served as vice president of the Gotham Club in 1856 and as one of the vice presidents of the NABBP in 1857. He also played for the first nine until 1858. One of the Gothams’ better players, he was proposed for membership in the Knickerbockers on April 1, 1854, the same date as that of Louis F. Wadsworth’s similar move.[42] Still active as a New York attorney in 1894, he resided at that time in Plainfield, New Jersey, as did Wadsworth. Cudlipp was 78 when he died at his daughter’s home in Yonkers, New York, on December 5, 1899.

C[harles?] Davis: a frequent entrant in the NYBBC box scores, he has been mistaken in print for the celebrated Knickerbocker James Whyte Davis, against whom he played.

William W. De Milt: Like Harry Venn and Seaman Lichtenstein, he was a member of the Columbian engine company, Number 14. As a carpenter and machinist for the Union Square, Brougham’s Lyceum (where fellow Gotham George W. Smith worked in 1850) and other New York theatres, he was responsible for producing a wide variety of stage apparatus and special effects. Born 1814, died 1875. Buried at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

Patsy Dockney: Born in Ireland ca. 1844. Catcher with Gotham in 1864–65. Paid under the table to move to Philadelphia Athletics in 1866; according to the Philadelphia Times, Dockney “used to play ball every afternoon and fight and drink every night. He was a tough of the toughs.”

Andrew J. Dupignac: Andrew Dupignac, Gotham Club secretary in 1860 and 1861, was born around 1828. He later became the president of the New York Skating Club and in 1903 was described as “the oldest living amateur skater.”[43] Dupignac died in Brooklyn on November 27, 1908.

298 Bowery, Old Gotham Cottage In The Bowery, May 25, 1878,  Leslie's.

298 Bowery, Old Gotham Cottage in the Bowery, May 25, 1878, Leslie’s.

James Fisher: Identity not known for certain but after thorough review of the New York City directories and considering other factors, I tentatively conclude that this early player, according to Peverelly, was James H. Fisher. Roughly the same age as the two other prominent players who were named honorary Knickerbockers in June 1846—Col. James Lee and Abraham Tucker (the former born in 1796, the latter in 1793)—Fisher was born in 1798. Like Lee, he had made his fortune by 1850 and in the census lists his occupation as “gentleman.” Previously he had listed his profession, with subtlety, as “agent.” In 1847, the year of his death, his address was 134 Allen Street, the neighborhood from which Wheaton and his mates had begun their search for lively recreation.

Robert Forsyth: In 1855, the year after the death of the affluent patron of this independent military company, the Herald reported: “The Forsyth Cadets, a well drilled company, composed chiefly of butchers belonging to Washington Market, will make their annual parade on the 18th inst.”[44] Shortly before his death, the Clipper observed: “This organization is named in honor of Robert Forsyth, Esq., a gentleman whose name is a ‘Household Word’ to all those who have occasion to visit Washington Market, being one of the most extensive dealers connected with that place. He must indeed feel honored at the compliment paid him by the ‘Cadets.’”[45] Robert Forsyth was also a member of the Washington Market Chowder Club at the time of his death, which was reported in the New York Herald on March 23, 1854. His sons, Joseph and James, were both Gotham Club members. According to the 1887 New York Sun article, Joseph was already dead while James was an oyster dealer.

View of Washington Market, from the Southeast corner of Fulton and Washington Streets, 1859. Weingartner_Valentine Manual

Washington Market, from S.E. corner of Fulton and Washington Streets, 1859. Weingartner, Valentine’s Manual.

George H. Franklin: George H. Franklin was one of the club’s representatives at the 1857 NABBP convention.

Andrew Gibney: Started with Gotham Juniors in 1863, graduated to senior club the following year. Played second base with the Gothams in 1865, then center field with the Nationals of Washington in 1866. Played professionally with Olympics of Washington in 1870. Alfred W. “Count” Gedney played as Gibney with the Keystone club in Philadelphia in his early years, but these two are not the same individual.

John V(an) B(uskirk) Hatfield: Widely regarded as one of the best players of the 1860s, with the Eckford and Mutual clubs, he also played one year with the Gothams, in 1865. See the [entry for the] Active Club of New York for more details.

NYBBC game of November 10, 1845

NYBBC game of November 10, 1845

Johnson: Played in the NYBBC anniversary contest of November 10, 1845. Harold Peterson, in his book The Man Who Invented Baseball, names him as a Knickerbocker and calls him F.C. Johnson. However, Francis Upton Johnston was a member of the Knickerbocker and the New-York Academy of Medicine, as were D.L. Adams and Franklin Ransom. One of his sons also practiced medicine for many years at Hyde Park, where he is buried. The NYBBC Johnson may, however, be neither man but instead William Johnson, named in a reminiscence of the Gotham Cottage by Colonel Thomas Picton in 1878, and a player for the club in the 1850s.

John Lalor: This sturdy New York and Gotham player is surely the Jonathan (“Jno.”) Lalor listed in the box score published in Spirit of the Times on July 9, 1853, detailing a match game between the Knicks and Gothams. He also played in the NYBBC second-anniversary game of November 10, 1845. Harold Peterson, in his book The Man Who Invented Baseball, instead identifies the player as Michael Lalor, “Segar Seller.” I think it is constable John Lalor, who umpired the Knickerbocker intramural game of June 26, 1846, and signed his name in full this way. This fellow was an up-and-comer in the Whig party in the Fifteenth Ward in 1845, and later its leader in the Seventh Ward. A lawyer by profession, he served in the Civil War, organizing the 15th Regiment, known as McLeod Murphy’s Engineers. John Lalor was born in 1819 and died on February 21, 1884. His obituary in the Herald noted that he was “a member of the Gotham club.” At his death he was chief clerk at Castle Garden.

Spirit of the Times, July 9, 1853; note Lalor

Spirit of the Times, July 9, 1853; note Lalor

Col. James Lee: According to Wheaton, he was one of the original Gotham Club members of 1837. Born December 3, 1796, he was a prominent businessman and sportsman. President of the New York Chamber of Commerce, he claimed to have played baseball in New York City ca. 1800. John Ward wrote, in How to Become a Base-Ball Player (1888), “Colonel Jas. Lee, elected an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Club in 1846, said that he had often played the same game when a boy, and at that time he was a man of sixty or more years. [In fact he was fifty.] Mr. Wm. F. Ladd, my informant, one of the original members of the Knickerbockers, says that he never in any way doubted Colonel Lee’s declaration, because he was a gentleman eminently worthy of belief.” In 1907 Ward added to his remarks about Lee a sentence that echoes editor Porter’s reason for establishing the New York Cricket Club: “Another interesting tale told me by Mr. Ladd was that the reason they chose the game of Base Ball instead of—and in fact in opposition to—cricket was because they regarded Base Ball as a purely American game; and it appears that there was at that time some considerable prejudice against adopting any game of foreign invention.”[46] Lee died on June 16, 1874.

Seaman Lichtenstein: A candidate for the first Jewish player, Lichtenstein began to run with Columbian Engine No. 14 at the age of 15, becoming a member of the company in 1849, at age 24. He began his business career salvaging scraps from the butchers at Washington Market, selling the meat to the Indians who lived in Hoboken and the bones to a manufacturer of glue (Peter Cooper). In the 1880s he owned a trotter named for Gotham Cottage proprietor and archetypal Bowery B’hoy Harry Venn. He died at age 77 on December 24, 1902.[47]

John McCosker: A third baseman, he began play with the Gothams in 1856. Played in Fashion Race Course Game 3 and in many games for the Gothams of the 1850s. Tom Shieber reported in the 1997 National Pastime: In a match game played between the Gotham and Empire clubs in September of 1857, McCosker hit a home run with the bases full. While he was most probably not the first to accomplish the feat, the description in the New York Clipper is the earliest known recounting of what would later be termed a grand slam: “The Gothamites … scored 4 beautifully in their last innings, chiefly owing to a tremendous ground strike by Mr. McCosker, bringing each man home as well as himself.” George Zettlein described McCosker (“McClosky”) as an engineer of the Fire Department, so there can be no question that the ballplayer was John A. McCosker, who was born around 1829 and was a fire department engineer prior to the war. When the war started, McCosker was one of the organizers of the 73rd Infantry—the Second Fire Zouaves—in which he served as a quartermaster until being discharged on August 4, 1862. His whereabouts become much harder to trace after that, but he may have died in 1881.

Dr. John Miller: According to Wheaton, he was one of the original Gotham BBC members of 1837. In 1842 John Miller, physician, is at 74 James Street. In 1845 he is at 186 East Broadway.

James B. Mingay: Entered the poultry business in Jefferson Market in his youth and remained in it until age 72. For 14 years a member of the Volunteer Fire Department with Hose Company 40, the Empire. A member of the Jefferson Market Guard and a judge of its target excursion on Christmas Day 1857. An officer of the Gotham club 1861–64. In 1876 a director of the North River Insurance Company. Born January 6, 1818. Died April 27, 1893, at his 19 Christopher Street residence.

John M. Murphy: According to Wheaton, he was a “hotel-keeper” and one of the original Gotham BBC members of 1837. He played in NYBBC anniversary contest of November 10, 1845, in Hoboken. Murphy’s establishment is the Fulton Hotel at 164 East Broadway.

Joseph Conselyea Pinckney

Joseph Conselyea Pinckney

Joseph Conselyea Pinckney: In a celebrated early instance of revolving, or seeming professionalism, Pinckney played a game with the Gothams in 1856 while still nominally a member of the Union of Morrisania. Both the Unions and the Knickerbockers objected publicly. Along with Knickerbocker defector Louis F. Wadsworth, he played with the Gotham in 1857. The next year, back with the Unions, he was one of only three New York players selected for the Fashion Race Course match to play in all three games. Enlisting at the outbreak of the Civil War, he was colonel of the 6th New York Militia. In 1863 he was brevetted brigadier general of volunteers for war service. Afterward he served in New York City politics as an alderman. Born and died in New York City (November 5, 1821–March 11, 1881).

Henry Mortimer Platt: Born July 7, 1822, died December 8, 1898. Played match game in 1854 but otherwise served Gotham Club as scorekeeper. He merits mention because in 1939 his daughter donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame the sole surviving badge of the Gotham Base Ball Club, featuring three men at sea in a tub.

Gotham Base Ball Club Pin

Gotham Base Ball Club Pin

Dr. Franklin Ransom: In the game of June 19, 1846, Dr. Ransom played with the club designated as the New Yorks. In 1838 Dr. Ransom resided at 44 Wall Street. He was in a medical partnership with Dr. Lucius Comstock but also found time to invent a fire engine with a modified hydraulic system. Dr. Ransom exhibited his fire engine to the City Council in 1841 but came to believe that the city had stolen his design. In 1858 he took a patent infringement lawsuit against the mayor of New York all the way to the United States Supreme Court, but did not prevail. Ransom was born near Buffalo in 1805 and earned his medical degree in 1832 from what was then known simply as the University of New York. He eventually returned to Buffalo, where he continued to file new patents but slipped into obscurity. He died there on March 25, 1873.

Edward G. Saltzman (Salzman, Salzmann, Saltzmann): Born about 1830 in Jefferson County, New York, he was schooled in Hoboken, New Jersey. Saltzman played second base for the Gotham club of New York for five seasons, from 1852 through 1856. Helped to bring the New York Game to Massachusetts via the Tri-Mountain Club. Brought baseball to Savannah, Georgia, in 1865, forming the Pioneer Club. Returned to Boston two years later and resided there until his final year. Died August 14, 1883, in Brooklyn.[48]

T. Seaman(s): Played in NYBBC anniversary match of November 10, 1845. He may be a billiard-room proprietor of that name or, more likely, he is one and the same as the later Gotham player and treasurer Seaman Lichtenstein, discussed earlier.

James Shepard: Played with Gotham, then Alpine BBC in 1860. Pioneer in establishing baseball in San Francisco, beginning in 1861.

William Shepard: Played with Gotham, then Alpine BBC in 1860. Pioneer in establishing baseball in San Francisco, beginning in 1861.

Philip Sheridan: Joined the Gothams in 1854. Frequently umpired. Said by Peter Nash in Baseball Legends of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery to have been buried in Green-Wood
Cemetery in Brooklyn, but the Philip Sheridan interred there is not the Gotham player.

George Wshington Smith

George Washington Smith

George Washington Smith: A member of the Gotham Club after 1845, he was born and raised in Philadelphia. Smith was considered the only male American ballet star of the 19th century. He went on to become ballet master at Fox’s American Theater. He also served in this capacity at the Hippodrome, where the costume of a dancer under his instruction caught fire with fatal consequence. In his later years he opened a dancing school in Philadelphia. Born ca. 1820, died February 18, 1899.

Milton B. Sweet: See Excelsior Base Ball Club.

Oscar Teed: Oscar Teed, a celebrated ship’s fastener and oarsman as well as a Gotham player. Born in 1828, he died November 4, 1866. A boat named in his honor ca. 1860 continued to race.

Austin D. Thompson: Born in 1820, Austin Thompson was described in his obituary as “a Connecticut Yankee, who came to New York when a youth and opened a coffee house in Pine street, near the old Custom House…. The coffee house, which was called the Phoenix, was frequented by the notabilities of the neighborhood, politicians as well as business men, particularly Democratic politicians, for Mr. Thompson was a Jeffersonian Democrat of the old school.” As its proprietor, Thompson was the successor to the famed Edward Windust, 149 Water Street (Wall, corner Water). In 1851 his coffee rooms and restaurant relocated from 13 Pine to 25 Pine. It moved again in 1860, this time to 292 Broadway, where it remained until Thompson’s death on June 7, 1892. By then Thompson was “probably the oldest eating-house keeper in the city,” which made him “a man who knew nearly everybody and nearly everybody knew him.”[49]

Thorn & Co., 1874

Thorn & Co., 1874

Richard H. “Dick” Thorn: Played with Empire Base Ball Club in 1856, yet was a representative of the Enterprise Base Ball Club at the convention of January 22, 1857. With Gotham in 1858; pitched for New York in Game 3 of Fashion Race Course Match that September. Returned to Empire 1859–61. With Gotham again 1862. With Mutual 1865–68. From about 1850 a prominent member and revenue collector of the Washington Market Association, Thorn partnered with Lathrop and then Marcley in his produce business in the 1860s. In 1870s he wholly owned Thorn & Co., 11–13 DeVoe Avenue, west of Washington Street. On January 26, 1889, rode on horseback, with Seaman Lichtenstein, in a parade to mark the opening of the West Washington Market. In that year lived at 233 West 13th Street. Does not appear in New York City directories thereafter, though he did testify at a hearing in 1890. On May 2, 1892, however, the Riverside (California) Daily Press published a notice that Thorn had purchased a substantial piece of land in the locality. One year later, he is described as an orange grower. He died in Riverside County on May 4, 1901 at the age of 71.

Tooker: Played outfield in Fashion Race Course Game 3. Later played with Henry Eckford Club. In 1871 was a director of the Athletic Base Ball Club of Brooklyn. Possibly this is Theodore, son of William Tooker, ship’s carpenter, who joined his brother-in-law George Steers in the shipyards that built the America.

Trenchard: Could be Samuel Trenchard, constable or marshal in various years from 1835 until 1861. In 1846 he resided at 86 Ludlow. Played with the club designated as the New Yorks on June 19, 1846. Also played with Washingtons against Knickerbockers in match game of June 17, 1851. Born 1791, died February 15, 1865, in his 75th year. This would make him a bit of a graybeard for active play in the 1840s and 1850s, so perhaps he is billiard-hall proprietor Alexander H. Trenchard, at 139 Crosby Street in 1855.

Tuche: After the 1856 season, Porter’s Spirit of the Times reported that the Gotham Club had been organized in the early summer of 1852 with “old ballplayer Mr. Tuche” at its head.[50] Other accounts also name Tuche as one of the principals, but his name soon disappeared from the club’s annals and nothing more is known about him.

Abraham W. Tucker: Born in 1793, he was named an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in June 1846, along with another New York Ball Club player, Col. James Lee. In 1822 he operated a “segarstore” at 205 Bowery. In 1837 he resided at 48 Delancey Street. Tucker died in Morristown, New Jersey, on September 10, 1868.

William H. Tucker was a tobacconist in business with his father, Abraham, who was also a player with the New Yorks. They operated at 8 Peck Slip and lived at 56 East Broadway. In 1849–50 he lived in San Francisco. In Alexander Cartwright’s journal/address book he is listed as: “Wm. H. Tucker 271 Montgomery st. upstairs, San Francisco, Cal.” Tucker appears to have died in Brooklyn, at the home of his son-in-law, on December 5, 1894, in his 76th year, which would conform to a birth year of 1819 recorded in the 1850 census.

Nicholas “Nick” Turner: Played left field in Fashion Race Course Game 2. A shoemaker residing in the Tenth Ward in 1860. Born 1831 in Bavaria. First name supplied by Waller Wallace and Henry Chadwick in Sporting Life in 1889.[51]

William Vail: Known affectionately as “Stay where you am, Wail,” for his often disastrous derring-do on the basepaths. In later years played with Knickerbocker. There are several candidates by this name, but based upon his age, the most likely one appears to be a tobacconist who was born in 1817 or 1818 and was living at 179 Prince Street in 1849. His wife, Mary, was born in 1822–23, and their children as of 1850 were all sons: William, Francis, Martin, Daniel, George, in descending order of age. This man died on December 12, 1881, age 63, and was described in his obituary as a member of the Exempt Fireman’s Association, a good sign that he was our pioneer ballplayer.[52]

Gabriel Van Cott: Acted as umpire for Gothams rather than player. There were a few Gabriels in the Van Cott family, but it appears most likely that this one was a cousin of Thomas and William. Another member of the family, Cornelius C. Van Cott (1838–1904), was the owner of the New York Giants of the National League from 1893 through 1895.

Theodore S. Van Cott: The son of Thomas, Teddy Van Cott later served in the Civil War and died in a home for old soldiers on August 23, 1905.

Thomas Van Cott: Thomas G. (1817–1894), who married Harriet Murphy, was the Gothams’ best player in the 1850s, and the great pitcher of all New York ballclubs. The Elmira Gazette obituary of December 19, 1894, called him “The Father of Baseball” and the first man to pitch a curved ball. He was a bookmaker in later years, at the Saratoga Track.

Judge William H. Van Cott

Judge William H. Van Cott

William H(athaway) Van Cott: Brother of Thomas; born September 26, 1821, in New York City, died June 30, 1908, in Mount Vernon, New York. Played in Fashion Race Course Games 1 and 2. Elected first president of the National Association of Base Ball Players when it formally organized in 1858. Van Cott, who was a lawyer and justice by profession, continued his family’s interest in trotters and began in the stabling business before entering the law. As Justice Van Cott he served 16 years on the bench. His New York Times obituary reported that his efforts to rid New York of gangs led to two attempts to burn down his house.[53]

Harry B. Venn: Played in NYBBC anniversary match of November 10, 1845. A noted fireman with Columbian 14 and the proprietor of the venerable (1778) Gotham Saloon beginning in 1830, when he left his porterhouse at 13 Ann Street and took his first lease at the property. His successor in the lease, S.W. Bryham, transformed the cottage in 1836 to become the Bowery Steam Confectionary and Saloon. By 1842, under new ownership, it was renamed the “Bowery Cottage,” and was the headquarters for firemen, sporting types, and Bowery B’Hoys. Venn resumed his proprietorship sometime before 1845. Behind the bar at the Gotham was a case with the gilded trophy balls from victorious Gotham Base Ball Club matches. (These survived, amazingly, and were sold to collectors in the 1980s; it would be pleasant to think that the Gotham rules survived too!) The back bar also featured a big gilt “6” taken from the Americus engine (the inspiration for Christy Mathewson’s nickname, Big Six). Boss Tweed was a regular patron at the bar. The Gotham Cottage was demolished in 1878, and Venn died a year later, on March 15, 1879. A contemporary wrote that his memorial might be inscribed: “Here lies one whose name was writ in whisky.” Much more could be written about Venn and the Gotham Cottage, but suffice for now this snippet from a long paean to the demolished house by Col. Thomas Picton in the Clipper on June 1, 1878:

Gotham Ball, 1869

Gotham Ball, 1869

“The Gotham” became, moreover, extensively known in connection with our national pastime, as beneath its roof was held the first general convention of baseball players, one of the earliest clubs in existence deriving its significant title from this snuggery in the Bowery. “The Gotham” Club [as re-formed in 1852] was a large association from the hour of its inception, organized through the election of Judge William H. Van Cott as president, and Gabriel Van Cott as secretary, with a roll of influential members, principally business men, embracing Harry B. Venn, Seaman Senchenstein [sic], James Forsyth, Joseph Foss, John Baum, George Montjoy, William Johnson, Edward Turner, E. Bonnell, Bates, Tooker, and a host of other notables. Its first playing members distinguishing themselves were Tom Van Cott, Sheridan, McCluskey [McClosky, “an engineer of the Fire Department,” as George Zettlein recalled, in fact John McCosker, who played catcher with the Gothams in 1858], Cudliffe [Cudlipp], and William Burns, its pitcher [catcher?], afterwards lost at sea upon the Central America, wrecked in the Pacific [sic].

Louis F. Wadsworth: Born in Connecticut in 1825, he commenced to play baseball with the Washingtons/Gothams in 1852. After a few years with the Knickerbockers (1854–57) he returned to the Gothams, whom he represented in Fashion Race Course Games 1 and 3. One of the veteran Knicks, in recalling some of his old teammates for the New York Sun in 1887, said:
I had almost forgotten the most important man on the team and that is Lew Wadsworth. He was the life of the club. Part of his club suit consisted of a white shirt on the back of which was stamped a black devil. It makes me laugh still when I recall how he used to go after a ball. His hands were very large and when he went for a ball they looked like the tongs of an oyster rake. He got there all the same and but few balls passed him.[54]

His time with the Knickerbockers, and his crucial role in affixing nine innings and nine men to the rules of baseball, are covered at length in Baseball in the Garden of Eden. Dissipating riches and fame, he died a pauper in the Plainfield Industrial Home in 1908.

William Rufus Wheaton: Discussed amply above.

Robert F. Winslow: Robert F. Winslow, a lawyer, played in the NYBBC anniversary game of November 10, 1845, Hoboken. In the game of June 19, 1846, Winslow played with the club designated as the New Yorks. Played center field for Gothams in mid–1850s. He and his son Robert, Jr., played for the Gotham in the match against the Knickerbockers commenced on July 1, 1853 and, after a rain interruption, concluded on July 5. In 1854, an Albert Winslow played with the Knickerbockers. Some evidence points to Robert, Jr.’s earlier demise, but the Robert Winslows are the only father-son pairing of that surname in New York at the time.

George Wright, 1863.

George Wright, 1863.

George Wright: He joined the Gotham juniors when he was 16, in 1863. One year later he graduated to the senior team and was the club’s regular catcher. He also caught for the club in 1866 under the name of “George” before transferring his allegiance to the Union of Morrisania, where he converted to left field and then shortstop. Born in 1847, George Wright was perhaps the greatest player of the 19th century and certainly its first national hero. He died in 1937, four months before his election to the nascent Baseball Hall of Fame. See the Union of Morrisania entry for more on his life.

Harry Wright: The Civil War so decimated the Knickerbockers’ schedule that Wright (1835–95) decided to leave them and join the Gothams in 1863–64. But by the next year he had tired of baseball and resumed his 1850s career, as a cricketer, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He had to wait longer than brother George to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame (1953). Leaving his post as the Cincinnati Cricket Club professional in 1867, he was persuaded to take the helm of the Cincinnati Base Ball Club. The rest is history; see the Cincinnati Base Ball Club entry in Base Ball Pioneers, 1850–1870 for more details.

William P. Wright: With Gothams in 1865, played in five games. Not related to Harry and George. Appears to have gone to Cincinnati with Harry Wright at year’s end. With that city’s Buckeye club in 1868–69, Live Oak in 1870.

Other Club Members: John Drohan, Joseph E. Ebling, Hackett, J.A.P. Hopkins, N.W. Redmond, Charles S. Riblet, Peter Roe, Albert Squires, Cornelius Stokem, Andrew Whiteside.

Notes

39. New York Sun, February 6, 1887, 6.

40. New York Daily Tribune, September 21, 1857, 7.

41. Angus Macfarlane, “The Knickerbockers: San Francisco’s First Baseball Team?” Base Ball 1:1 (Spring 2007), 7–21.

42. Albert Spalding Baseball Collections, Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, Club Books 1854–1868, New York Public Library.

43. New York Herald, March 20, 1903, 12.

44. New York Herald, October 14, 1855, 1.

45. New York Clipper, December 31, 1853.

46. Letter from John M. Ward to A.G. Spalding, stating his “opinion as to the origin of base ball,” as Spalding submitted to the Mills Commission, June 19, 1907.

47. New York Times, December 25, 1902.

48. New York Clipper, August 25, 1883, 365.

49. New York Sun, June 8, 1892, 4.

50. Porter’s Spirit of the Times, January 3, 1857.

51. Sporting Life, January 16, 1889, 3.

52. New York Herald, December 14, 1881, 8.

53. New York Times and New York Tribune, July 1, 1908.

54. “Ball Players of the Past,” New York Sun, January 16, 1887, 10.

The New York Base Ball Club (a.k.a. Washington BBC, Gotham BBC), Part 2

Base Ball Founders, 2013

Base Ball Founders, 2013

This continues from http://goo.gl/WQEVTR. It was first published in Base Ball Founders: The Clubs, Players and Cities of the Northeast That Established the Game (McFarland 2013).

Admittedly, this has been a serpentine path. Let me now bring in William Rufus Wheaton to help fill in the story. Born in 1814, Wheaton attended New York’s Union Hall Academy, at the corner of Prince and Oliver streets, near Chatham Square and the racket court and handball alley at Allen Street, which he appears to have frequented. He read law with the notable attorney John Leveridge, passed the bar in 1836, was active in the New York 7th Regiment, and in 1841 was admitted to practice in the Court of Chancery and the Supreme Court of New York. His legal training, more than that of any other original Knick mentioned as a “father of baseball,” equipped him to codify the venerable if still anecdotal playing rules.

Wheaton was a solid cricketer as well as a baseballist. He umpired two baseball games played between the New York and Brooklyn clubs on October 21 and 24, 1845, both of which were played eight to the side and reported in the press, with accompanying box scores. He recruited members for the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, as Peverelly noted. He was the club’s first vice president. Although paired with the tobacconist William H. Tucker as the entirety of the Knickerbocker Committee on By-Laws, Wheaton appears to have been the one who truly wrote the rules that were formalized on September 23, 1845. Before that, by his own account, he drew up the rules for the Gotham club of the 1830s, which the Knickerbockers adopted with little change aside from repealing the Gotham provision for an out to be recorded by a catch on the fly.

By the spring of 1846, however, barely six months after the founding of the Knickerbocker Club, Wheaton resigned. We do not know the circumstances. On June 5 of that year, the Knickerbockers, not yet one year old, elected their first honorary members, 49-year-old James Lee and 53-year-old Abraham Tucker, both of whom had been Gothams. Wheaton was not accorded such an honor.[26] He left the Knickerbockers and returned to active play at cricket, going on to win a trophy bat for highest score in a match of the New York Cricket Club in October 1848.[27]

On January 28, 1849, a month before Alexander Cartwright’s departure from New York, Wheaton embarked for California in a speculative venture called the New York Mining Company, in which he was one of a hundred gold-besotted souls who purchased and outfitted a ship, the Strafford, for what would be a 213-day journey to San Francisco around Cape Horn. Although he returned east upon occasion thereafter, he made his substantial business and political career in the West.

Wheaton Remembers,:SF Examiner, 1887

Wheaton Remembers: SF Examiner, 1887

On Sunday, November 27, 1887, an “interesting history” appeared on page 14 of the San Francisco Examiner. It was entitled “How Baseball Began—a Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago Tells About It.” This interview with an unnamed “old pioneer,” undoubtedly Wheaton, lay buried in the microfilm archives until 2004, when Randall Brown published extensive excerpts from it in his landmark article, “How Baseball Began,” in SABR’s National Pastime.[28] Here is the entirety of the Examiner piece, with variant spellings and styles intact.

HOW BASEBALL BEGAN
A Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago Tells About It.
PLAYED FOR FUN THEN.
The Game Was the Outgrowth of Three-Cornered Cat, Which Had Become Too Tame.

Baseball to-day is not by any means the game from which it sprang. Old men can recollect the time when the only characteristic American ball sport was three-cornered cat, played with a yarn ball and flat paddles.

The game had an humble beginning. An old pioneer, formerly a well-known lawyer and politician, now living in Oakland, related the following interesting history of how it originated to an Examiner reporter:

“In the thirties I lived at the corner of Rutgers street and East Broadway in New York. I was admitted to the bar in ’36, and was very fond of physical exercise. In fact we all were in those days, and we sought it wherever it could be found. There were at that time two cricket clubs in New York city, the St. George and the New York, and one in Brooklyn called the ‘Star,’ of which Alexander Campbell, who afterwards became well known as a criminal lawyer in ‘Frisco, was a member. There was a racket club in Allen street with an enclosed court. [A note in the New York Clipper on October 23, 1880 evokes the period: “In olden times Chatham square used to be an open meadow or common, and was the play-ground of the boys of this city. Baseball was the favorite game played on the square, but it was then a simple pastime, with flat sticks or axe-handles for bats, and yarn balls. Occasionally a boy, more lucky than the rest, would bring on the ground a ball made of a sturgeon’s nose, procured from the racket court in Allen street, where it had been driven over the wall by a rash blow.”]

[“]Myself and intimates, young merchants, lawyers and physicians, found cricket to[o] slow and lazy a game. We couldn’t get enough exercise out of it. Only the bowler and the batter had anything to do, and the rest of the players might stand around all the afternoon without getting a chance to stretch their legs. Racket was lively enough, but it was expensive and not in an open field where we could have full swing and plenty of fresh air with a chance to roll on the grass. Three-cornered cat was a boy’s game, and did well enough for slight youngsters, but it was a dangerous game for powerful men, because the ball was thrown to put out a man between bases, and it had to hit the runner to put him out. The ball was made of a hard rubber center, tightly wrapped with yarn, and in the hands of a strong-armed man it was a terrible missile, and sometimes had fatal results when it came in contact with a delicate part of the player’s anatomy.”

THE GOTHAM BASEBALL CLUB.

“We had to have a good outdoor game, and as the games then in vogue didn’t suit us we decided to remodel three-cornered cat and make a new game. We first organized what we called the Gotham Baseball Club. This was the first ball organization in the United States, and it was completed in 1837. Among the members were Dr. John Miller, a popular physician of that day; John Murphy, a well-known hotel-keeper; and James Lee, President of the New York Chamber of Commerce. To show the difference between times then and now, it is enough to say that you would as soon expect to find a Bishop or Chief Justice playing ball as the present President of the Chamber of Commerce. Yet in old times everybody was fond of outdoor exercise, and sober merchants and practitioners played ball till their joints got so stiff with age they couldn’t run. It is to the oft-repeated and vigorous open-air exercise of my early manhood that I owe my vigor at the age of 73.wheaton_autograph

“The first step we took in making baseball was to abolish the rule of throwing the ball at the runner and order that it should be thrown to the baseman instead, who had to touch the runner with it before he reached the base. During the regime of three-cornered cat there were no regular bases, but only such permanent objects as a bedded boulder or an old stump, and often the diamond looked strangely like an irregular polygon. We laid out the ground at Madison square in the form of an accurate diamond, with home-plate and sand-bags for bases. You must remember that what is now called Madison square, opposite the Fifth Avenue Hotel, in the thirties was out in the country, far from the city limits. We had no short-stop, and often played with only six or seven men on a side. The scorer kept the game in a book we had made for that purpose, and it was he who decided all disputed points. The modern umpire and his tribulations were unknown to us.”

October 25, 1845: New York vs. Brooklyn; Wheaton, umpire

October 25, 1845: New York vs. Brooklyn; Wheaton, umpire

HOW THEY PLAYED THEN.

“We played for fun and health, and won every time. The pitcher really pitched the ball and underhand throwing was forbidden. Moreover he pitched the ball so the batsman could strike it and give some work to the fielders. The men outside the diamond always placed themselves where they could do the most good and take part in the game. Nowadays the game seems to be played almost entirely by the pitcher and catcher. The pitcher sends his ball purposely in a baffling way, so that the batsman half the time can’t get a strike [meaning “a hit”] or reach a base. After the Gotham club had been in existence a few months it was found necessary to reduce the rules of the new game to writing. This work fell to my hands, and the code I then formulated is substantially that in use to-day. We abandoned the old rule of putting out on the first bound and confined it to fly catching. The Gothams played a game of ball with the Star Cricket Club of Brooklyn and beat the Englishmen out of sight, of course. That game and the return were the only two matches [i.e., games with other clubs] ever played by the first baseball club. [NOTE: These undoubtedly refer to the contests of October 1845.]

“The new game quickly became very popular with New Yorkers, and the numbers of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker. For a playground we chose the Elysian fields of Hoboken, just across the Hudson river. And those fields were truly Elysian to us in those days. There was a broad, firm, greensward, fringed with fine shady trees, where we could recline during intervals, when waiting for a strike [i.e., a turn at bat], and take a refreshing rest.”

LOTS OF EXERCISE AND FUN.

“We played no exhibition or match games, but often our families would come over and look on with much enjoyment. Then we used to have dinner in the middle of the day, and twice a week we would spend the whole afternoon in ball play. We were all mature men and in business, but we didn’t have too much of it as they do nowadays. There was none of that hurry and worry so characteristic of the present New York. We enjoyed life and didn’t wear out so fast. In the old game when a man struck out[,] those of his side who happened to be on the bases had to come in and lose that chance of making a run. We changed that and made the rule which holds good now. The difference between cricket and baseball illustrates the difference between our lively people and the phlegmatic English. Before the new game was made we all played cricket, and I was so proficient as to win the prize bat and ball with a score of 60 in a match cricket game in New York of 1848, the year before I came to this Coast. But I never liked cricket as well as our game. When I saw the game between the Unions and the Bohemians the other day, I said to myself if some of my old playmates who have been dead forty years could arise and see this game they would declare it was the same old game we used to play in the Elysian Fields, with the exception of the short-stop, the umpire, and such slight variations as the swift underhand throw, the masked catcher and the uniforms of the players. We started out to make a game simply for safe and healthy recreation. Now, it seems, baseball is played for money and has become a regular business, and, doubtless, the hope of beholding a head or limb broken is no small part of the attraction to many onlookers.”

***

The scorebook that Wheaton referenced, along with the Gotham bylaws and playing rules, was not a figment of his aged imagination. Gotham shortstop Charles C. Commerford wrote to Henry Chadwick in 1905 that the first baseball game he saw (he played in the 1840s and 1850s) was played by the New York Club, which “had its grounds on a field bounded by 23rd and 24th streets and 5th and 6th avenues.” Commerford would have seen this game just prior to the fall of 1843, when the New York Ball Club moved its playing grounds to Hoboken. “There was a roadside resort nearby [the Madison Cottage] and a trotting track in the locality. I remember very well that the constitution and by-laws of the old Gotham club, of which I became a member in 1849, stated that the Gotham Club was the successor of the old New York City Club.”[29]

Corporal Thompson's Madison Cottage ca. 1850.

Corporal Thompson’s Madison Cottage ca. 1850.

Commerford added, in a 1911 letter to the New York World: “There was always some little contention between the Knickerbocker Club and the Gotham Club as to the date of organization. The Knickerbockers claimed that they were the first to organize and the Gothams claimed priority, as the New York Club was merged into the Gotham and the former (New York) always insisted that they were the first to organize as such.”[30]

To provide additional gloss on Wheaton’s reminiscence, the games cited above, in which the Gothams “beat the Englishmen out of sight,” were the very same games recorded in the press as pitting New York against Brooklyn in late October 1845. These were the last two of three games played between representatives of the two cities in that month, although we cannot say for certain that the first game was played by the same clubs as the latter two, as no box score survives to identify its contestants.

The Knickerbockers played their first recorded game, an intrasquad contest, in that month as well. On October 6, seven Knicks won by a count of 11–8 over seven of their fellows in three innings. Wheaton was the umpire. William H. Tucker scored three of the losing squad’s eight runs.[31] Like Wheaton and other Knickerbockers, he had been a player with the New York Base Ball Club and maintained his tie to them, indeed playing in the two formal matches of the New Yorks with the Brooklyn Club on October 21 and 24 of 1845, a month after he had helped to form the Knicks. In The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America, author Tom Melville pointed to an even earlier contest between Brooklyn and New York clubs, played on October 10 and reported in the New York Morning News.[32] Research more than a decade later has revealed a somewhat fuller account in the obscure and short-lived newspaper the True Sun:

The Base Ball match between eight Brooklyn players, and eight players of New York, came off on Friday on the grounds of the Union Star Cricket Club. The Yorkers were singularly unfortunate in scoring but one run in their three innings. Brooklyn scored 22 and of course came off winners.[33]

True Sun, October 13, 1845

True Sun, October 13, 1845

Many of the early New York baseballists had cut their teeth on cricket, and this was true of the Brooklyn players as well. In the game of October 21, conducted at the Elysian Fields, the eight players of the New York club won handily. They did so again in the game three days later, played at the grounds of the Union Star Cricket Club, opposite Sharp’s Hotel, at the corner of Myrtle and Portland avenues near Fort Greene. The scores were, respectively, 24–4 and 37–19. On both these occasions the Brooklyn baseballists included established cricketers John Hines, William Gilmore, John Hardy, William H. Sharp, and Theodore Forman.[34] Their lineup appears to have been identical for the two games, as the Ayers in the October 21 box score and the Meyers of October 24 may be alternative renderings of the same individual. The other seven Brooklynites match up.

For me, the New York Base Ball Club second-anniversary game of November 10, 1845, reported in the New York Herald on the following day, has much in common with the purported “first match game” of June 19, 1846, while the games of October 1845, particularly the latter two, seem to be true match games between wholly differentiated clubs. It could be argued—I certainly would—that the Knickerbockers played no match games until they met the Washington club on June 3, 1851, a game the Knicks won by a count of 21–11. Look at the cast of characters in the Herald’s account of the game.

NYBBC

Several interesting things emerge from this notice of the game. Prominent Knickerbocker names are present—Wheaton, Tucker, Cone, Clair (Clare). So too are Gotham players of prominence—Lalor, Murphy, Johnson, Winslow, Case. The Davis who plays here and in the game of June 19, 1846, is not the Knickerbocker James Whyte Davis, who played opposite him in at least one contest after J.W. Davis’s entrance on the scene in 1850. Venn is Harry Venn, celebrated Bowery icon and proprietor of the Gotham Cottage (a billiard and bowling saloon) at 298 Bowery, longtime clubhouse to the Gotham BBC. Gilmore may well be the Union Star cricketer who played baseball with the Brooklyns on October 21 and 24.

The game of November 10 was played nine to the side, clearly to 21 runs or more in equal innings, a rule that may have been invoked only for formalized contests. The two sides were unnamed. While the New Yorks were celebrating their second year as an organized club, on another field in Hoboken, that very same day, the Knickerbockers were playing an intramural match all their own, eight to the side. So who were these mysterious NYBBC players, so important to baseball’s development yet nearly invisible in the shadow of the Knickerbocker Club? Let me supply a brief record with identifications for a few major figures. An addendum to this essay will portray, in a more perfunctory manner than it deserves, the reconstituted Gotham Club from 1852 until it drifted into inconsequence after the professionals formed their league in 1871. Someone ought to write a book.

The Gotham Base Ball Club of 1855: the first surviving photograph of a baseball team.

The Gotham Base Ball Club of 1855: the earliest surviving photograph of a baseball team.

According to Peverelly, the Gotham Base Ball Club of New York was organized early in 1852, with a mysterious Mr. Tuche as its first president. In his Book of American Pastimes he treated the Washington Base Ball Club as a separate entity, supplying slim details of their two matches with the Knickerbockers on June 3 and 17, 1851. For the first, which the Knicks won by a count of 21–11 in eight innings at the Red House Grounds, all that he had was a line score (both games went unreported in the press). For the second game, which the Knicks won 22–20 in ten innings, he listed the Washington players, several of whom we recognize as New York Base Ball Club players from the 1845 anniversary game and the purported match game of June 19, 1846: William. H. Van Cott, Trenchard, Barnes, William Burns, C[harles] Davis, Robert Winslow, Charles L. Case, Jackson, Thomas Van Cott. Peverelly also lists the officers of the Gotham Club since 1856 and describes the club uniform of ten years after as “a blue merino cap, with a white star in the centre; white flannel shirt, with red cord binding; blue flannel pants, red belt, and white buckskin shoes.”

When the Gothams met the Knicks on July 1, 1853, a game interrupted by rain and resumed on the 5th, their players included (William) Vail, W.H. Van Cott, Thomas Van Cott, (Robert) Winslow, Sr., (Robert) Winslow, Jr., Jonathan ( John) Lalor, Reuben H. Cudlipp, and two highly skilled new players—Joseph C. Pinckney and Louis F. Wadsworth, both of whom would soon leave the club for greener pastures, perhaps lured by emoluments. Another Gotham with a vagabond temperament was second baseman Edward G. Saltzman, who in the spring of 1856 relocated his jewelry trade to Boston. With Brooklynites Augustus P. Margot and Richard Busteed, Saltzman organized the Tri-Mountain Club to play baseball by New York rules.

On November 7, 1857, correspondent “X” wrote of that year’s edition of the club in Porter’s Spirit of the Times:

Their best men are: Messrs. Vail, Van Cott, Cudlipp, [William] Johnson, [John] McCosker, Wadsworth, Sheriden [Phil Sheridan], Turner, and [Charles] Commerford. Mr. Vail, one of the oldest players in this city, and one of the original members, has had great experience; he has filled the position of catcher since Mr. Burns left (the club miss this player very much). He is a strong bat, and plays with good judgment. Mr. Van Cott stands very high as pitcher, combining speed with an even ball. Mr. Wadsworth formerly belonged to the Knickerbocker [which he joined in 1854, coming from the Gotham], and until the last year or so played in all their matches, but left them through some misunderstanding. It is claimed by his friends that he is the best first base man in any club, perfectly fearless—he will stop any ball that may come within reach—is a good player in any position, as his fielding last Friday will show. McCosker and Johnson are both fine catchers, and remarkably strong batsmen; and of the others it may be said, that if not powerful batters, they are what is termed sure ones, and good catchers…. The Gotham formerly played on the grounds of the Red House, and would probably have played there to this day, had there not some difficulty sprung up with the proprietor or lessee. They play at Hoboken, on grounds but slightly inferior to their old locality.[36]

298 Bowery, the Gotham Inn, a.k.a. Gotham Cottage or Gotham Saloon

298 Bowery, the Gotham Inn, a.k.a. Gotham Cottage or Gotham Saloon

The Gothams believed they were direct descendants from not only the Washington Club (which they averred to have organized in 1849, not 1850 as Peverelly had it), but also from the primal New York Club. The club limped along through the 1870s as the professionals took hold of the game. In 1871, following the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the first professional league, the Gothams joined with 32 other clubs, including the venerable Knickerbocker and Eagle clubs, hoping to keep top-level amateur play alive. In a last-gasp member-recruitment circular issued at the opening of the centennial year of 1876, the club’s directors wrote, “The Gotham Base Ball Club dates its existence from the year 1849; it is, therefore, one of the oldest—if not the oldest—organization of its kind in the country.”[37]

A few weeks later, the New York Times reported on the meeting of old Gotham players that resulted. It was noted that this club had “turned out more professional players than any other,” which oddly may have been true. Buried in the notice was the still, to this day, not fully fathomed heritage of the club—like that of the game itself— in the rough and rowdy crowd that populated Washington Market long before.

The meeting on Monday evening was a large and very harmonious one. Old times were talked over, and a unanimous feeling prevailed in favor of reorganizing and keeping up the old club. Mr. James B. Mingay, a gentleman who has done business in Jefferson Market for over thirty years past, was elected president and Mr. Abraham H. Hummel, of the law firm of Howe & Hummel, at No. 89 Centre street, was made Vice President. [Hummel was the notorious underworld lawyer of his day.] The Secretary is Mr. Melchior B. Mason of No. 32 Chambers Street and the treasurer, Mr. Leonard Cohen, of Washington Market. There were about forty of the old members present; and among those who will take an active part in the new organization are Mr. Seaman Lichtenstein, of No. 83 Barclay street, who has been in business over thirty-five years … Mr. John Drohan, Mr. James Forsyth, and Mr. Richard H. Thorn, all merchants of Washington Market, of between twenty and thirty years’ standing.[38]

[Next, a concluding section of biographical profiles of NYBBC / Washington BBC / Gotham BBC players.]

Notes

26. Albert Spalding Baseball Collections, Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, Club Books 1854–1868, New York Public Library.

27. Spirit of the Times, October 21, 1848, 414.

28. Randall Brown, “How Baseball Began,” The National Pastime 24, 51–54.

29. “The Old Atlantics of Fifty Years Ago,” 1905 clipped article, perhaps from Brooklyn Eagle, otherwise undated. Albert Spalding Baseball Collections, Chadwick Scrapbooks, vol. 5. Chadwick quotes from a letter he received from Commerford. Also Auburn Citizen, September 22, 1911, reprinted from New York World.

30. Auburn Citizen, September 22, 1911.

31. Albert Spalding Baseball Collections, Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, Game Books 1845–1856, New York Public Library.

32. Tom Melville, The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1998), 168. Melville erroneously cited the game date as October 11.

33. True Sun, October 13, 1845, 2.

34. First names were located in Picton, “Among the Cricketers,” Fun and Fancy in Old New York.

35. “Sporting Intelligence,” New York Herald, November 11, 1845, 2.

36. Porter’s Spirit of the Times, November 7, 1857, 148.

37. New York Herald, January 7, 1876, 8.

38. New York Times, January 23, 1876, 7.

 

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